David McCallum obituary: The Great Escape, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Sapphire & Steel star

In blond moptop and black turtlenecks, the Scottish film and TV star became a 60s pop culture sensation in the American spy show The Man from U.N.C.LE.

2 October 2023

By David Parkinson

David McCallum © Preserved by the BFI National Archive

At one point in the 1960s, David McCallum, who has died at the age of 90, was the hottest British actor in Hollywood. Nicknamed ‘The Blond Beatle’, he had become a pop culture phenomenon for playing a Russian spy on an American TV show at the height of the Cold War. According to MGM, McCallum received more mail from female fans than any other actor in the studio’s history, including Clark Gable and Elvis Presley. Not bad for someone who only had two lines in the pilot.

Born in Glasgow on 19 September 1933, McCallum was the son of classical musicians who settled in Hampstead when his father became leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. He became so proficient on the oboe that he took classes at the Royal Academy of Music. However, the thrill of being applauded as Prince Arthur in an amateur production of King John convinced the eight year-old that his future lay in acting. 

In 1946, McCallum secured his Equity card after making his radio debut in Whom the Gods Love, Die Young. Several juvenile roles followed at the BBC before McCallum became an assistant stage manager at Glyndebourne on leaving school. Following National Service with the Royal West African Frontier Force, he trained at RADA from 1949 to 1951, where Joan Collins was a classmate. 

Repertory stints in Frinton-on-Sea and Oxford ensued before McCallum made his television bow in The Rose and the Ring (1953). More in hope than expectation, he sent photographs to the Rank Organisation and was cast by debuting director Clive Donner as a leather-jacketed James Dean wannabe in the crime drama The Secret Place (1957). Next, he hobbled on crutches as Stanley Baker’s younger brother in the gritty realist thriller Hell Drivers, and married co-star Jill Ireland shortly after the shoot. They were paired as lovers down under in Robbery Under Arms (both 1957) before headlining the seedy crime saga Jungle Street (1960) as a mugger and a stripper. 

The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961)

Reuniting with Baker, McCallum impressed as another delinquent in Basil Dearden’s problem picture Violent Playground (1958). His Scouse accent was patchy, although as a gang leader he oozed surly charisma. But two parts as radio operators, in the Titanic drama A Night to Remember (1958) and war story The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), signalled a shift towards more mature roles, and McCallum left to try his luck in Hollywood.

Although he had been cast as Judas Iscariot in the Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), delays meant that McCallum was already established by the time it was released. Having suffered from an Oedipus complex in John Huston’s Freud and shown sailor Terence Stamp kindness as a gunnery officer in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (both 1962), McCallum guaranteed his place in cult movie folklore as Eric Ashley-Pitt, the POW who earns the nickname ‘Dispersal’ for devising an ingenious way of shifting tunnel soil in The Great Escape (1963).

Yet it was television that proved McCallum’s métier. He gave notice as a time-tweaking inventor and a mutating Welsh miner in two episodes of the sci-fi series The Outer Limits (1963/64). And it was as Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 to 1968) that he became a superstar. Having only been a minor character in the feature-length 1963 pilot Solo, the Russian with a blonde mop and a penchant for black turtlenecks became equal partners with Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), as the agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement sought to confound the nefarious schemes of the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity, or THRUSH.

Although Kuryakin was intense, introverted and intellectual, McCallum played him with such cool charm and enigmatic wit over 105 episodes that he earned a Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations. He and Vaughn also made eight spin-off features, as well as The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair (1983), a teleplay that started with Kuryakin as a fashion designer. 

A comeback series didn’t materialise, but McCallum had exploited his peak fame to record four instrumental albums with producer David Axelrod, one of which contained ‘The Edge’, which was sampled by Dr Dre and resurfaced in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017). His own excursions as an big-screen action man, Sol Madrid (1968) and Mosquito Squadron (1969), underwhelmed, however, and McCallum retreated back into television.

Sapphire & Steel (1979-82)

Following the neglected TV horror movies Hauser’s Memory (1970) and She Waits (1972), McCallum returned to Blighty to play a short-fused RAF officer in Colditz (1972 to 74), Jacobite warrior Alan Breck Stewart in an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1978), and an impassive extra-dimensional detective alongside Joanna Lumley in Sapphire & Steel (1979 to 1982). He would later team effectively with Diana Rigg in the miniseries Mother Love (1989) and steal scenes as a gambler in Howard’s Way follow-up show Trainer (1991 to 1992), during a period in which he trod the US guest star circuit following the short-lived sci-fi series The Invisible Man (1975 to 1976). 

However, a cameo in the legal series JAG (2003) turned into a 20-year gig, as McCallum reached a new audience as medical examiner Dr Donald Mallard in spin-off show NCIS (2003-). Sporting a bow-tie and dispensing offbeat avuncular wisdom over 457 episodes, ‘Ducky’ so caught McCallum’s imagination that he studied pathology and attended so many autopsies in order to appear credible in the role that he became something of a forensics expert.  

  • David McCallum, 19 September 1933 to 25 September 2023
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